Date: October 17, 2021
Bible Text: Ecclesiastes 3:1-15 | Bart Smith
Human beings have a strange relationship with time.
Yesterday morning I was listening to the NPR show Wait, Wait… Don’t Tell Me. They were about to play a recording of when one of my favorite comics, Dulce Sloan, was on the show, when Peter Sagal quipped, “So this week we are taking stock, as the year comes to a close, to make sure it all really happened. Time is so weird these days. Is it going forward, backward or standing still?”
Do you feel that?
The host, Bill Kurtis, replied, “All I know is I still look the same as I did when I was 20 years old. The painting in my attic, though, looks terrible.”
This has been especially true during the pandemic. Our staff had an expression here that I believe Nicky coined, “Time is fake.” It’s felt fake. People describe blocking out large chunks of time over the last 19 months. When we were in quarantine, people who were working or going to school sitting in front of screens for hours on end spoke about the days blurring together.
Even apart from the pandemic, “time is fake.” Yesterday feels like forever ago. Childhood feels like just yesterday. When we see someone for the first time in a long time, there’s still a part of us that is surprised by how they’ve aged. We expect little kids to be frozen in time. Parents often talk about how the days are long but the years are short…
And I’m “painting with broad brushstrokes” here, but often younger people walk around with a profound sense of urgency and often older folks have more patience and perspective.
Some moments last forever, according to lots of love songs. And speaking of songs, how many of them are about the passage of time?
Then there are the idioms… When it passes too quickly, “Time flies when you’re having fun” or such and such passes “in the blink of an eye.” When you’re doing something allegedly without purpose we say, “Quit wasting time” or “Killing time.”
My point is there’s a subjective aspect to time. We relate differently to it. How we relate to it depends on our frame of reference.
So the Teacher, as the writer of Ecclesiates is called, points us to seasons. This text is usually only read at memorial services, but there’s plenty of wisdom in it for other moments in life. “For everything there is a season,” he writes, “and a time for every matter under heaven.” We live our lives within the rhythms of seasons, within the cycles of nature. In a wonderful little collection called Earth Prayers, John Soos wrote:
To be of the Earth is to know
the restlessness of being a seed
the darkness of being planted
the struggle toward the light
the pain of growth into the light
the joy of bursting and bearing fruit
the love of being food for someone
the scattering of your seeds
the decay of the seasons
the mystery of death
and the miracle of birth.
Life has its seasons— not just spring, summer, winter, and fall. And not just childhood, adolescence, young adulthood, middle age, and old age. There are other seasons in which we find ourselves… Beginnings and endings. Hellos and goodbyes. Health and illness. Struggle and triumph. Acquiring and letting go. Peace and conflict. Grieving and celebrating. Faith and doubt. Someone I know likes to refer to seasons of saying yes and seasons of saying no.
What kind of season(s) are you in right now?
What kind of season(s) are we in?
We’re human and we know life is full of moments, good and bad, easy and hard. And if we’re paying attention to our entire story, personally, we should be able to identify and remember the truth the Teacher is reminding us of today: there’s a season for everything. Life is seasonal.
Life is seasonal, but we forget this. We have trouble with this. We resist this, even, probably because seasons change and seasons signify change. One of me and my spouse’s favorite expressions about change is “the only person who likes change is a baby with a wet diaper!” And that corny old joke:
“How many Presbyterians does it take to change a lightbulb?”
“I don’t know. How many Presbyterians does it take to change a lightbulb, Bart?”
Precisely because seasons signal change, it’s important to think seasonally because we are prone to operate under the assumption that so much is permanent, when so much is decidedly temporary. Life is constantly changing! We are constantly changing, down to the cells in our bodies. Some Eastern wisdom traditions do a better job of reminding people that life is in a constant state of flux and that permanence is an illusion. All of that is expressed more clearly in the Spanish word for season, temporada. Temporary.
When we’re facing something difficult, there’s time-honed wisdom and reassurance in that old adage, “This too shall pass.”
But thinking seasonally also helps us embrace what is positive. Take the version of the song that the Folkies will sing for us in just a few moments. The Byrds’ version is probably the most famous, but did you know the song’s history?
Pete Seeger composed it in 1959 in response to a letter from his publisher. “Pete,” [the letter] read, “can’t you write another song like ‘Goodnight, Irene'? I can’t sell or promote these protest songs.”
“You better find another songwriter,” Seeger wrote. “This is the only kind of song I know how to write.”
He then turned to his pocket notebook, where he jotted down pieces of [this passage from Ecclesiastes 3] for recycling... in his own words, “verses by a bearded fellow with sandals, a tough-minded fellow called Ecclesiastes.”
Seeger added the “turn, turn, turn” to build a chorus and tacked on his own hopeful concluding line for cold war audiences: “A time of peace; I swear it’s not too late.”
To Seeger, it was another protest song, a call for transition.
Thinking seasonally helps us think about what the potential, blessings, or gifts might be in any given season, even the messy, transitional ones.
Ecclesiastes doesn’t endorse or explain these seasons, the good ones or the bad ones, it just acknowledges that they are. Full stop. Birth, death, crying, laughing, dancing, planting, uprooting, searching, speaking up, staying silent, repairing, loving, etc. One interesting fact about this book is that First Century rabbis questioned its inclusion in the Biblical canon. Other scholars over the centuries have pondered its purpose. And yet, others have found its inclusion to be deeply comforting because of its honest take on life. One Vietnam War chaplain attested that it was the only part of the Bible that his soldiers were willing to hear. Even in moments of despair, especially in moments of despair, comfort can come from honesty. And that seems to be the Teacher’s way.
Thinking seasonally is vital for accepting whatever life throws at us; not acceptance as in passive resignation to what shouldn’t be — taking an “it is what it is” attitude to when people are being hurt, for example — but acceptance as in honestly staring what is square in the face. You see, we spend a lot of our lives running from, avoiding, denying, or numbing ourselves to the truth of certain things. Thinking seasonally helps us deal with it, whatever “it” is.
Being in a season of grief is one example. So many people try to rush through grief rather than accepting it, “This is a season of loss. I am in it. How am I going to live now?”
As another example, take this pandemic. So many people are and have been in a state of denial about it. I often wonder if accepting it — “We are in a season of the spread of a life-threatening disease and things are going to be really strange and really hard for a while, and we are going to have to adjust the way we go about daily life” — would have helped us move through it more quickly. Maybe we tried to do that for a bit...but then it’s like we forgot. We’re still in the pandemic, yet so many of us just want to pretend it’s fully past us now.
Seasons change. And because they change, sometimes it’s hard to tell what season we’re in. That’s where discernment comes in, prayerfully asking, “What season am I in? What season are we in? And what is God calling me/us to do in this season?” It’s asking “what time is it?” in a spiritual sense.
Take a moment to look at the reading again. Scan the list. Do any of these name the season you/we are in? What is it time for? Speaking or listening? Searching or letting go? Planting or uprooting? Or if it’s not on the Teacher’s list, what word would you use for this season you’re in, these seasons we are in, however long or short?
Thinking seasonally ultimately calls our attention to what is actually constant, what is enduring, what is eternal… or rather Who is constant, enduring, and eternal. Our good and gracious creator of the universe and parent to us all, that wordless mystery of Love undergirding everything is the one who never changes. “I know that whatever God does will last forever; it’s impossible to add to it or take away from it,” the Teacher proclaims. The One who is beyond time, who sees all time, holds us in time. God is steadfast and faithful. To quote the letter to the Hebrews “Jesus Christ is the same today, yesterday, and forever.”
God is with us, God abides with us, no matter the season.